Studies in the Sabbath No. 6


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As we begin this evening, I must apologize for the long interruption of this series on the Lord’s Day. Obviously it is not easy to pick up a thought that we left last a month and a half a go. But such is life. But it will help if I remind you where we are. If you remember, this series on the Sabbath, the day of rest, followed a series we did on the Bible’s doctrine and ethics of work. Both work and rest are found together in the transcript of human life given to us both in the creation narrative and in the fourth of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath is the divinely ordered counterpart to our life of work. We began our series acknowledging that there are many, including many evangelical Christians, including even some Reformed Christians, who do not believe that Christians today are under an obligation to keep one day of the week holy to God and to observe it as a day of rest. They maintain that the Sabbath day was a Jewish ordinance, an institution that passed away in the new epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles and no longer applies. We pointed out, in passing, that, though some Christians have this view, none of them, for some reason, think that we are always to work. They tend to be for holidays just as much as anyone else. They simply don’t believe in any particularly biblical holiday. That has always seemed to me to be a particular weakness of that position. They argue, many of them, that Christ has made every day the Sabbath day – that we find our rest in Christ on every day – but they still want a day off, or two, every week! There is an instinctive recognition of the rightness of the Sabbath principle. It is passing strange to me then the unwillingness to give the credit to God who made the Sabbath and instituted the holiday in the first place!

In any case, with this denial of the Sabbath obligation so common these days in the church, we began by setting out the argument for the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath day. We argued that the day of rest is a creation ordinance, one of those fundamental patterns for human life that God established at the very headwaters of man’s life in this world. The Sabbath belongs with work, marriage, and family as one of the basic structures of human life as God made it. God intended man’s life to be a life of work interrupted by holidays. People have argued against this and we considered their arguments and rejected them. We then took note of the place of the Sabbath obligation in the Ten Commandments, that most fundamental summary of man’s moral obligation. Taking the Bible together, it is well nigh impossible to think that one of the obligations listed in the Ten Commandments would ever be annulled or cancelled or simply fall away. We looked at the three texts in the New Testament that are taken by some to prove that the Sabbath commandment was in fact abrogated by Christ and his apostles and saw that none of them proves any such thing. There was a controversy about whether or not Gentile Christians should have to observe the Saturday Sabbath, but there was, so far as the evidence goes, never a controversy about whether Christians should keep Sunday as the day of rest. In fact, in Hebrews 4 we are reminded that the Sabbath is a foretaste of heaven, a foretaste as much for Christians today as ever it was for believers in the ancient epoch.

Next we considered the switch that was made from Saturday to Sunday in the New Testament epoch. It is the Sabbath but now observed on the first day of the week, not the last. It was a change reported more than specifically commanded in the New Testament as were a number of other such changes in form from epoch to epoch, but that it was made is clear enough from the materials of both the New Testament itself and those of early Christianity. We reviewed that evidence. “Lord’s Day,” one of the Old Testament synonyms for the Sabbath Day, is now used to refer to Sunday, or as it is often called, “the Christian Sunday.” If the Sabbath on a Saturday derived from the pattern of creation – God working six days and resting the seventh – the Sabbath on a Sunday derived from the pattern of redemption – God the Son giving up his life for us on Friday and rising from the dead on Sunday. If creation is a great, great thing; redemption is even greater and, at the last, it should not surprise us that the history of our redemption should have left its mark on our weekly schedule.

Having considered in those first three studies the Bible’s theology of the Sabbath, we turned then to its ethics. We pointed out that misunderstanding here has really bedeviled the church’s practice of the Lord’s Day, even her love for this holiday her Savior gave her. She has often construed the obligation to keep the Lord’s Day holy in such an oppressive and unnatural way that it has seemed obvious to her that the Lord would have delivered her from a burden so onerous. Too often, we said, the church has understood Sabbath-keeping in much the same way as the Pharisees did, according to an endless list of cannots. But what does the Bible actually say? It gives us surprisingly little regulation because it always keeps clearly in view the real interest and purpose of the commandment, which is to be boon to us and not a burden, as Jesus himself said, and which is, after all, one of those ways in which we love God and our neighbor. There is, for example, much less case law regarding the Sabbath than there is for the sixth commandment – against killing – or the seventh – against adultery. With regard to the Sabbath the Bible takes a cleaner, simpler approach. We saw that the Bible lays primary stress on the Sabbath as a day of rest from work. That is the main thing. You don’t have to work on the Sabbath day, the Lord’s Day. You get a day off. What a burden! Second, the Sabbath is said to be the day for the public worship of God’s people. Those are the two main things the Bible says about how the Lord’s Day is to be kept holy: by not doing your daily work on that day and by meeting on that day with the people of God for the worship of God. We looked at some Old Testament texts that are thought to say more than this about the right keeping of the Lord’s Day and found that they do not. The Sabbath is a holy day, a day set apart, a day of rest from work and a day for public worship. That is the teaching of the first 39 books of the Bible. We might gather more from the general tenor of OT ethics, but the most important additions to the ethics of Sabbath-keeping are given to us in the New Testament by Jesus anyway, and we now turn to that teaching about how the Sabbath is to be kept holy.

We have already looked at the Lord’s vindication of his rule over the Lord’s Day as the Lord himself. It is his day and we are to look to him, to his teaching and to his example, for our understanding of what the day is for and how it is to be kept. We have already made the point that at the several places where the Lord directly encounters the Pharisees’ Sabbath case law – that is, how the 4th commandment is to be observed in respect to specific questions – he repudiated that case law. He did it in the case of their criticism of his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath in Mark 2 and, of course, he did it on a number of occasions with respect to healing the sick on the Lord’s Day. The Pharisees regarded such things as work and so violations of the commandment. Jesus says they were wrong. Now that is something to ponder because, of course, plucking grain on the Sabbath as they were walking along can hardly be said to be a work of necessity. These were grown men. They could have anticipated their need for food and prepared a lunch ahead of time. They could have, for that matter, waited until the day was over to have their meal. It wouldn’t have cost them anything to do without that food but a little bit of discomfort. What is that compared to holiness? Indeed, we regularly accept that the way of holiness is often going to be hard on our appetites! What is more, in Exodus 16, if you remember, a point was made not to gather manna on the Sabbath. But, all of this notwithstanding, the Lord said very plainly that his disciples committed no sin in plucking grain on the Sabbath. In fact, there in Mark 2, as you remember, he reminded them of David’s use of the temple bread for his hungry troops to show them that such an act was, in the nature of the case, no violation of God’s law even by the standards of the Law of Moses. It was such a thing that God would approve. The law was not meant to keep people hungry. And what the disciples did was not work as manna-gathering was for Israel in the wilderness – their daily pursuit of food – and so it violated no provision of the law of God. And he himself committed no sin by healing the sick on the Sabbath day. This is an important observation, especially for those whose tendency is to understand Sabbath keeping in terms of rules about what may and may not be done: every time the Lord encounters the Pharisees’ Sabbath casuistry, he repudiates it. There is a tendency in religiously-minded hearts to mistake the nature of obedience to God’s law. We must be careful not to make that mistake.

Now I want to look at two particular aspects of the Lord Jesus’ own Sabbath-keeping. Here is the perfect man and the life of perfect obedience. How did he keep the day holy?

First, we have those occasions reported in the Gospels when the Lord took action for the sake of others on the Sabbath and regarded such action as no violation of the commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy.

We have two incidents close together in Luke 13:10-17 and 14:1-6. READ both of the texts.

Text Comment

13:14
Very clearly the synagogue ruler is regarding Jesus’ healing as working and so a violation of the 4th commandment.

14:2
The Pharisees are clearly setting a trap for Jesus. They want him to violate the law and so condemn himself.

14:5
The Lord, aware of their designs, sets a trap of his own. The way he asks the question leaves them with no choice but to appear either lax in obeying the Sabbath law – by doing what by their own definition must be work on the Sabbath – or harsh and unsympathetic toward a person in need. Not knowing how to extricate themselves from the dilemma, they say nothing.

Now, it is important to observe several things. First, and once again, the Lord Jesus does not take issue with the obligation of Sabbath-keeping. He never calls into question the importance of keeping the Lord’s Day and he does not here. On this point he had no quarrel with the scribes and Pharisees. He never said of the Sabbath what he said about the regulations touching clean and unclean foods in Mark 7:19 – declaring them obsolete and soon to be annulled. He never said about the Sabbath what he said in John 4:21-24, about the sacrificial worship of the temple in Jerusalem, that it was soon to disappear. What he said to the Pharisees about the Lord’s Day was completely different. He never said it was coming to an end; that it had served its purpose and was needed no more. What he said was this: what you condemn as violations of the Sabbath are not, in fact, violations at all. The 4th commandment, rightly understood, does not forbid such things at all, indeed, it permits them, encourages them, even demands them. The Sabbath law is holy, just, and good, but the Pharisees’ interpretation of it was not. That is what he rejected. And the Pharisees had gone wrong precisely because they had lost sight of the purpose and intent of the Lord’s Day.

This is where we always go wrong with the commandments of God. It is a subtle shift and usually goes unnoticed and unremarked. It certainly did in the Pharisees’ case. For all their religious zeal, the Pharisees were lovers of themselves rather than lovers of God. And being their own gods, having substituted themselves for God – the bottom sin of all our sinning – they created their own laws, a host of laws to keep. And their laws became more important, much more important to them, than God’s own laws. They imagined that they were serving God and God’s laws, but they were really substituting their laws for his. But in order to justify that shift from God’s law to their own – to justify it at the core of their conscience – they had first to make God’s law something less glorious, wonderful, and attractive than it is. And the only way to do that was to detach the commandment from its purpose and intention, to concentrate on the bare rule itself rather than the good that God sought for us and others in that rule. And that is what the Pharisees did – and, alas, what many Christians have done following them!

And that is what Jesus here accuses them of having done. They had replaced his law with their own traditions and, in doing so, had willfully refused to see that a ridiculous list of do’s and don’ts was hardly what God had in mind when he gave his laws to his people. He was meaning to bless and keep them, not burden and discourage them. The Lord’s Day was for men, to be a boon and a pleasure for them. His point is that had the Pharisees remembered how much divine kindness and generosity and goodness the Lord has shown us in giving us a day for our rest and refreshment in him, they would never have imagined that the Lord would disapprove of healing the sick on his holy day. Only someone whose eye was on the rule for the rule’s sake and not on the purpose of the rule could make a mistake as ghastly as that. C.S. Lewis once wrote that this kind of religion, the religion in which he had been raised, a rule-based religion, is “the memory of Christianity.” [Cited in Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 41, 42-43] One can still find the traces of it, but the living thing is no longer present, only the memory. And some proof of the fact that the Pharisees’ sort of view of Sabbath keeping is only “the memory” of the true faith is provided by the fact that in the law of Moses the humanitarian emphasis of the 4th commandment is extended even to one’s animals. They too are to be blessed by the day of rest. The living thing, the love, the kindness, that was the heart of the OT Sabbath but a mere concession among the Pharisees.

“You would rescue your son, Jesus said to the Pharisees, if he fell into a well on the Sabbath day; you would even rescue a dumb animal that did the same, work though that would be in some respects. And, let us be clear about that, Jesus meant that they would be right to do so. He is not saying that they would have been right to break the law in such a case – as if he meant that they could break the letter of the law in order to keep its spirit. He is saying that any amount of activity or exertion necessary to help your son in his need or even your ox breaks neither the spirit nor the letter of the Sabbath law. The law is for the blessing of people and animals; it is for their life and welfare. When one acts with such interest he is keeping the law, not breaking it. It is very like, as we saw last time, Isaiah saying that men keep the Sabbath by treating their workers with respect and kindness and by always speaking the truth to others. Doing that the other six days of the week is the same thing as observing the Sabbath on the seventh because both of them concern the blessing of man. The Lord’s Day is for rest and worship especially, but if necessity – real necessity – requires work on your own or another’s behalf, well, of course, that is not forbidden. The very nature of the commandment actually requires it, a commandment published, after all, to serve the welfare and happiness of mankind.

Young people, I cannot stress this principle too emphatically. Hear me. God does not require sexual purity of you, or respect toward your parents, or honesty, or hard work, or the keeping of the Sabbath to complicate your lives and burden you with guilt and tiresome obligations. It is not simply a rule to be kept. God is not a spoil-sport. God is the most cheerful and kind and wide-spirited being in the universe and his laws reflect that cheerfulness. God wants you to be happy and your lives to be safe and fruitful and satisfying. And being God, your creator and the all-wise ruler, he knows best what such a life requires. Believe him when he tells you that he has a blessing in store for you when you keep his commandments and life by his laws. Remembering this will help you immensely when you find it difficult to obey. God never tells you to do anything for any other reason but that he loves you and wants you to be happy. Remember that! Don’t let anyone bad-mouth the laws and commandments of God in front of you. Stand up for them and tell those who complain about having to obey that, next to his Son, the Lord Jesus, the greatest gift that God has given to his children are his wise and good commandments. And some proof of that fact is just the way the Lord Jesus responded to the Pharisees. They didn’t see how much good and love and beauty and kindness there were in the commandments of God and that is precisely where they went so terribly wrong!

That is the first way in which Jesus’ example is of great importance to us as we seek to know what it means to keep the Lord’s Day holy. He often acted on behalf of others and said that such actions are absolutely in keeping with the purpose of the Sabbath commandment. Using the Lord’s Day for others is the third thing the Bible tells us in telling us how to keep the Lord’s holy day. Rest from your work, worship with the church, and bless others. He has given you a day for that. Use it. You know how much the Bible says our lives are going to be judged by what we have done for others. Well God has given you a day of the week in which you have time to do just that, just what you are so much going to want to have done when your all-too-short life in this world is over.

Second, Jesus also made a point of spending the day with other people, often with fellow believers, but often with people with whom he did not share living faith. The Lord’s Day, for Jesus, was a day for being with others, a day for fellowship and a day for being with unbelievers to some spiritual purpose.

Interestingly, we don’t have to move texts to make this point. You’ll notice that Luke 14:1 makes the point that it was on the Sabbath that Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee. We know from other sources that these meals could be quite sumptuous. Good food and drink and a table full of guests were often the order of the day, especially in well-to-do homes. Indeed, “The Jews’ tables were generally better spread on [the Sabbath] day than on any others.” [Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, 149, with citations.] Later Christian writers were to scorn these Jewish Sabbath meals as overly luxurious. [See Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 87-88; cf. also Str.-B, Kommentar, ii, 202-203] One thing is clear: those who, in Christian history, have taken the view that one should eat very simply on the Lord’s Day, that all the cooking should have been done the day before, and that nothing remotely like work should be invested in Sunday dinner does not seem to have the support of Jesus himself. He went to such banquets on more than one occasion. Given the nature of these banquets and the special place they had on the Sabbath, it is not unlikely that most of his visits to the homes of Pharisees recorded in the Gospels occurred on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath for Jesus was a day to spend with people, people of all kinds, friends and foes alike. It was a day to enjoy a meal with them and to have a conversation about important things: to be a friend, and still more, with believers to be a brother.

Our catechism speaks of “works of necessity and mercy” as works that are permitted on the Lord’s Day. Put that way it sounds too much like a concession, as if those works were not really the proper work of the Lord’s Day but could be done in a pinch. Taking the Lord’s example as a whole and keeping to what the Bible actually says about keeping the Sabbath, I think it would be better to say that the Sabbath is a day for works of mercy, investment in the lives of others, and doing things for others that need to be done. To do such things is not simply not to violate the 4th commandment; on the contrary, it is precisely how to keep the 4th commandment. Jesus, by his example, is not widening the application of the 4th commandment to life, i.e. is doing and showing precisely what a right-thinking Israelite would always have known was true Sabbath keeping: resting from work, going to worship, spending time with people in refreshing, useful fellowship, and doing good to those in need. That is true Sabbath-keeping, that and nothing more.

It is, after all, theLord’s Day. Knowing him, his love, and his will, how else would a day given to him be spent? It seems another day, another world, but in the mid-19th century in Scotland – when the three largest denominations were all Presbyterian and accounted for 83% of the worshipping population – a young man later to be a minister in England was rebuked by a Glasgow policeman for whistling the last hymn on the street after the morning service. Not fit Sabbath activity! Well, we know that is a grotesque mistaking of the Bible’s teaching and the Lord’s example. [Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 74] The Sabbath is a day for whistling hymns on the street and everywhere else! But what about this? In 1743 John Wesley went to Newcastle, the great coal-mining city, to preach to the poor miners and their families. These were poor people living a life of drudgery. The children were dressed in rags, skinny and unhealthy. Wesley was moved to compassion, but he was adamant in his sermons that their playing ball and dancing on the Lord’s Day had to stop! Was it right for him to tell those poor people, whose lives of relentless drudgery was interrupted but once a week with a day of rest, that they couldn’t play together on the Lord’s Day? Was there to be no play, no such refreshment for them in the week? Was it only public and private worship and acts of necessity and mercy on their Sabbath? [Tomkins, John Wesley, 107]

I will let you decide about that. But make sure that you decide with a heart and a mind intent on getting at the true meaning and purpose of the Lord’s gift of this remarkably wonderful holiday once every week.

Perhaps you want me to tell you whether you can do this or that on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps you don’t because you are afraid that I will tell you that you must not do what you want to do on Sunday. But that is not my role or anyone’s role, except perhaps that of the parent in the home. My role is to remind you of what the Bible says about keeping the Lord’s Day holy: by resting from work, by worshiping the Lord with his people, by loving others in need, and by spending time fruitfully with others, especially around a meal-table. You have to work it out, but you must with a view to the blessing of keeping the Lord’s Day as the Lord’s Day, and not simply your own. Start with the things you should do. Come to church twice on the Lord’s Day, spend time with other believers, use your day to do good to others, take up opportunities to be with unbelievers – not for your entertainment, but to do them good – and look for the refreshment of your soul in all of these things, the very thing the Lord intended for us when he gave us his holy day. Once the positive use is looked after, in my experience most of the other questions will disappear.

Students, you work at your studies so you shouldn’t do school work on the Lord’s Day. You don’t have to be a Pharisee to recognize that there is a “cannot” in the 4th commandment. Parents, you must show this to your children and teach them the blessing of not having to work. No one ever lost a good grade because he or she didn’t study on the Lord’s Day! Six days are enough if only they be rightly used. And what a blessing to have a day off! Nor should anyone struggle to discover whether the Lord’s Day can be kept rightly by going home from church to spend the day watching the football game on television or taking a three hour nap! That is no true boon to you or to anyone else. It is not the Lord’s Day. But, I can imagine you watching a football game at someone else’s house, an unbelieving friend who asked you to dinner and with whom you might have a conversation about Christ and salvation. And if exhausted because of matters beyond your control, I can well imagine a godly man or woman using the Lord’s Day to sleep. Such is the way of God’s commandments and the heart that wants to obey and knows that it will find God’s blessing in obedience is precisely that heart that will find the right way to answer all such questions.

And when the heart is right, other questions become less important. For example, when does the Lord’s Day begin and end. It went from sundown to sundown in Judaism (not by any express commandment of the law of God, by the way). Is it 24 hours or 12? The alternation of days for work and a day of rest in Genesis 2 seems to suggest that we are talking about days and not about days and nights, but no point is made one way or another. In our family, the Sabbath ended by and large at the end of evening worship, but others have a different custom and that is fine with me. Or what of eating out on Sunday, or running to the store to get that one thing you forgot for your Sabbath table, or the other questions that people are always asking. Remember Newton: “love is the best casuist.” Love for God and love for man; love for God’s law and love of God’s blessing: that will be the best, the surest guide. Want God’s blessing, revere his law in your heart, and then do what you think best fits the purpose and function of the day.

No doubt we will have to lean into the wind. Our culture has no concern for the Lord’s Day so we cannot take our cue from its practices. We will often have to swim against the tide. What is new in that? Jesus said that there would be sacrifice in being his disciple and much of that sacrifice comes in the form of rejecting what the world accepts as good and normal. It is certainly not an accident that the world has made Sunday the supreme day for televised sports. The Devil is a master at getting men – and I mean men, men as opposed to women, the men who are the heads of their homes and the supreme examples to their sons – to accept half a commitment to Christ instead of a whole one. He knows where to apply the pressure. There should be some strictness in our lives – some nay-saying – because we love and desire to honor the Lord and most of the people around us do not. No commandment of God’s law can be kept without some sacrifice, some risk.

I remember reading an article in the journal Church History [Sept. 1990, 340-355] by Winton Solberg, then a professor of history at the University of Illinois. Solberg is the author of a very interesting and helpful book on Sabbath-keeping in colonial America. In this article, entitled “The Sabbath on the Overland Trail to California,” Solberg reports the results of his examination of diaries and other reports of those daring and difficult journeys to determine how the Sabbath was kept on the wagon trains carrying the hopeful to the California gold fields. In those days a considerable number of people traveling westward thought that the Sabbath was God’s holy day and should be kept, but most of the time the wagon trains kept right on going, Sunday as on every other day of the week. In the headlong rush to reach the goldfields before others most refused to take one day of the seven in the week for rest, for themselves and for their animals – even those who felt they should and had a guilty conscience because they did not. There were noble exceptions, including even some who exposed themselves to Indian attack as they rested while the others went on. But as one diarist summed up the situation: “There is but few men that will keep the Sabbath when there is a sacrifice to be made.” What of us? Would we think California gold more joy than riding on the heights of the land and feeding on the inheritance of our father Jacob?

I suppose the question amounts to this: do we believe that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that God made the Sabbath for us and for our good? Or shall we tell him that we do not need it or want it and that he can have his gift back? We have a better idea about how to find what is good for us!

If I were to tell you what I want most for you as your minister, what I would most like to be the mark and the reputation of this congregation, I would say this. First, I want you to be people dominated by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, people whose lives are shaped in obvious ways by the reality of God’s great love for and mercy to sinners, people whose hearts and minds, whose voices and hands are animated by redeeming love, the forgiveness of sins, the unsearchable riches of Christ; people who walk with God and relish the experience of communion with Christ present by the Holy Spirit. But, second, I want you to be people of the law of God; people who love God’s law, who treasure it as the gift of God that it is; people who love to order their lives day by day, hour by hour, by that law and by those commandments sure that the commandments of God are not burdensome but are the way to everything happy and holy.

I want you, therefore, to be people who call the Sabbath a delight, as you should and who honor the Lord’s Day and keep it holy. I want you to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy precisely because you understand what a great gift you have been given in that holiday once a week and how much of God’s love and kindness for you lie in it. For you and for others. I want the Lord’s Day to be a day of joy and pleasure for you and your families, to be the very best day of the week. It ought to be. Parents, set out to make it so for your children. Believers in Jesus Christ, do what he did and keep God’s law in the happy and fruitful way he kept it: in the company of others, doing good and speaking good, after being yourself refreshed in the worship of God’s house.